If you've played a Hitman game, you'll be well acquainted with the sonorous voice of Agent 47. It's become one of the hallmarks of the series, and actor David Bateson has been playing the character since the very first game. As a longtime Hitman fan, I've always wanted to chat to the man himself—and this year I finally made it happen. After sinking 50 hours into the magnificent Hitman 3, hearing Agent 47 speaking to me was a strange experience.
PC Gamer: How did you land the role of Agent 47?
David Bateson: I'd love to say it was an audition between me and three thousand other people, and I fought them all off... but no. It was kind of a serendipity moment, really. Being in the right place at the right time. I was doing a voiceover in a studio in the same building where IO was doing the graphics for the very first Hitman game. They interrupted my session and said "Hey, David, when you're finished, would you mind coming and looking at this new game we're working on? We need a voice!"
And it was a no brainer. I was looking at the footage, a scene in Hong Kong, and it was all dark and shadowy and very Blade Runner. And straight away I was like, wow, I love this. And it helped that the character was bald! So I gave the voice a crack, although the part wasn't mine. I still had to audition. I decided on a kind of Philip Marlowe detective thing. (In Agent 47's voice) "I walked into the room and the door was ajar." That kind of dry, deadpan delivery. I've learned over the years that it's always good to commit to an approach. Don't do it half-assed, as they say, and hope for the best. And they liked it!
Playing a genetically engineered assassin with no emotions must be a pretty tough challenge for an actor...
It was a tricky job, for IO and for myself. This character could easily sound dull to the ear, like he's unplugged and not feeling anything. But I thought we had to have some human aspect to this emotionless, laboratory-created killer. I actually looked to my own upbringing for inspiration, which was very fragmentary. I moved around a hell of a lot. I don't know if my parents were wanted by the police or what. [laughs]
As a child, despite having friends and a lot of love at home, I often felt alone. I'd change schools every year and I'd be the new boy every time. So that feeling of being on the outside looking in was something I decided I could use to colour Agent 47's dialogue. To give it a bit of a haunting feeling, like Frankenstein's monster. "Who am I? Who created me? Where do I come from?" It was a little game I'd play in my own head.
Obviously I took all the direction that came my way, because anything helped. But this aspect quietly crept into the character more and more, just in the way I was delivering the lines. I wasn't going against the script or the character, but it gave me something emotional from my own memories to hang the delivery on.
He's a very introspective character. Even when he's surrounded by people at some fancy event, you still get the sense he feels alone...
Yeah, sometimes when I see him in places like the nightclub in Berlin I think: "Just let your hair down! Go and have a nice Long Island iced tea and get on down. You can kill them later. Chill out for a bit, this is a great club."
What about the accent? When you speak normally, your English accent comes through. But Agent 47's is kinda hard to place...
Maybe it's because of my upbringing. I didn't really click to any particular dialect. I have this kind of international sound, which is actually very useful, because Americans don't like Brits. (Exaggerated upper class English accent) "Hello, I've come here to talk down to you." Europe is getting that way about Britain too, and some parts of Southeast Asia apparently find the accent difficult to understand if it has any kind of regional dialect. So I'm thankful for my accent. I basically just made it up.
With Agent 47, we didn't want it to sound like he comes from anywhere in particular. Because he doesn't, right? He came out of a test tube. We couldn't be like (exaggerated Texan accent) "Hey, y'all!" So the accent had to swim somewhere around the Mid-Atlantic. He comes from everywhere and nowhere. It's Americanised, but it's very deliberately not regionalised to a particular place in the United States.
How has the process of recording dialogue for a videogame changed since you worked on Hitman: Codename 47 back in 2000?
Well, 20 years in computer gaming is like two millennia. For the first few games, at least Codename: 47 and Silent Assassin, we could record all my dialogue in about three or four hours. He was very monosyllabic back in the day. But now it takes about six months! We meet about every six to eight weeks for a four-hour sitting. The script now is a film script times three or four, because there are all these different options for who you meet or if you're in disguise.
It started with Hitman (2016), and in Hitman 2 it went off the scale. I got the script and I was like "What the fudge is going on with all this dialogue? What happened to the 'silent assassin'?" But IO told me to go with it. When Agent 47 is disguised as a plumber or a bodyguard or whatever, there are long periods where the player is moving around in silence. So they thought it would be a more interactive experience to have lines like (Agent 47 voice) "Another slice of lemon, madam? More ice in your gin and tonic, sir?" And at first I thought "What? He's here to kill people!" But I was totally wrong, and when I experienced it myself, it was amazing the difference that made for the player.
The thing is, Agent 47 is a pretty crap actor. I'm not allowed to diversify my accent and become a German bodyguard or a Hispanic waiter. He says his lines in a delightfully wooden way. It has a charm to it. In the Paris level, he's backstage at a fashion show and is approached by a couple of pretty flamboyant, extravagant, slightly camp people. I can't remember if they're make-up artists or designers. But I found myself laughing, because he (Agent 47 voice) has no information in this area. He doesn't know how to interact with people in the fashion industry. It's a quantum leap from who he is and what he's about. And I was like "Aw, bless. He's a little taken aback here, I think."
Do you see much of the game while you record? Or are you mainly working from a script?
More often than not, I don't get to see anything. For the cinematics, I do get to see a bit of the footage, which makes the world of difference. I think it's very fortunate how the writers and I have got to know each other, and have basically grown up together, because we have a kind of a shorthand in the studio. All the other actors are recorded in London or Los Angeles, but I record my lines here in Copenhagen.
The only thing I'm interested in is what happened just before. I don't wanna know what happens next in the scene. This makes the reading feel fresh. I'll ask a lot of questions before I start the session, and I usually get a quick brief, a sketch, from the writers. But I refuse—simply refuse—to say a line if I don't know its context. I think that's just a waste of microphone time. It's wrong.
When an actor plays a character for a long period of time, they often get quite protective of them... do you feel that way about Agent 47?
I'm psychotically protective of him. He's my best friend! It sounds weird saying that out loud, but it's kinda true. The developers and I have a mutual protective understanding of the role of Agent 47. We've never had artistic disagreements about how the lines should be said. Only if I'm messing around in the booth and being silly.
But there's an understanding that Agent 47 is someone we understand intimately, and we can't allow ourselves to write or say a line wrong. Sometimes I'll read a line and it doesn't sound right. It doesn't ring true. And the writer next door will agree and change it. But that's quite a rarity because we have so much synergy in the studio. That's something that comes with all the years of working together, I suppose.
In the most recent game, Hitman 3, we see more of a human side to Agent 47 than we ever have before. He even smiles, which is nice, but also kinda creepy...
Getting to know his identity, where he comes from, and who's pulling the strings has taken 20 years. We've just finished a three-game story arc with Hitman 1, 2, and 3, but it has been haunting him for decades. So I think the writers knew we were coming to an end here—at least of this journey—and I think that influenced the writing. Let it go, Agent 47. He's been holding it in all these years. Give us a smile! Although when you see him smile at the end you think "Uh oh. A busload of nuns are about to die." [laughs] Something really bad is gonna happen here.
You live in Copenhagen where IO is based, right?
Yeah, I'm just stalking them constantly. "Gimme a job! I know you're making a James Bond game!" I see there's a bit of a movement on social media where people are saying they should put me in, that I'd make a great villain. I mean, I don't know. IO can choose whoever they want. Let's see what happens. I wish them all the best for that project. It's a tremendous honour for them to have been granted this franchise. I feel very protective of them, actually. I do quite a lot of interviews, for all sorts of weird sites, and I always want to thank IO Interactive. I'm very proud to be a part of Hitman.